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After trying for hours to remember my wordpress password–I take pride in my memory and hate stooping to password resets–I’ve finally broken back in to this very dusty, book-cluttered attic corner of the internet.¹ The occasion:  the realization, after reblogging a Tournament of Books 2014 post to my tumblr, that I have things to say about books again! Granted, they are cranky and pretentious things; please be assured that I am at least self-aware, if not exactly repentant, of how obnoxious I am. Because I don’t like to clog that corner with too many words of my own, I undertook the arduous process of logging in here.²

Quite a lot has changed for me. I don’t particularly care to talk about it, but confessional writing is gravitational. In short:  I am catless, jobless, pennyless, thankfully not homeless or McGintyless, and rushing through a hasty 2nd bachelor’s degree in the hopes of attending grad school next fall. I read fewer books last year than probably any other in my lifetime, but I watched a lot of movies to compensate.³ Though I don’t miss working in bookselling (an armed robbery, among other things, stole the joy from it and though I tried for nearly a year I never could steal it back), I still love to read. December depression (see:  “catless,” above) struck me hard, but at least I remembered how much I love reading. As ever, books are always there for me, offering escape and surmountable challenges when everything else in the life of the mind goes askew. The release of the Tournament of Books 2014 lineup helped galvanize my finishing rate, though after a string of questionable titles from the list I am looking forward to the beautiful Balzac that NYRB sent me in the mail as my next fiction read.

Enough preamble. On to the Tournament breakdown! I have currently read nine and two different halves of the books.  As ever, I am exceptionally grumpy about the titles chosen. I must remind myself that every year always feels like the worst year ever in Tournament history, and every year I am thrilled by something that I might not otherwise have read… but having read nine and two halves of the books I am starting to think that my kneejerk hyperbole might be correct this time around? To begin with, I am having a hard time considering any book separate from an ever-present question:  “How does [insert ToB title] compare to Americanah?” The answer, so far, is overwhelmingly that they don’t. None of the books that I have read — so far! fingers crossed! — comes close to matching the wonderful blend of erudition, newness, and likeability that was Americanah. It’s a wonderful book, but it’s also an important book written by an author (I cynically suppose) that the ToB selection gods should adore just for how well she would boost their diversity bragging rights. The exclusion of Americanah is a terrible oversight, especially considering the titles that the gods of the Tournament selection saw fit to include. I feel so strongly about this that I decided to annoyingly bold the preceding sentence, and I feel so strongly about it that I have added a second sentence just to emphasize how shocked and upset I am that Adichie has no chance to take the Rooster. I’ve been shaking my fists at the selection committee all month. Most of my commentary can be reduced to a bitter mutter that eventually descends into profanity. I will try to say other things about the titles I’ve read but do keep in mind that, unless I say otherwise, every thought I have about this group of books is underpinned by this plaint, this unstated (oh, I will try not to state and overstate) outrage. The list — which I have divided into “books I have read” and “books I have not read,” with a never-before-seen special category of “book I have no intention of reading ever (O, Americanah!What injustice!)”

Books I Have Read

  1. At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón – I lie. I haven’t actually read all of this:  this is one of the abovementioned half-read titles. This book isn’t terrible or offensive (other than the fact that this is not Americanah). It is just dull. If I finish it, it will only be because I have persisted in using it as a soporific long enough to somehow creep through the whole text. The best way I can think to describe this lackluster entrant is “Bolaño Lite:”  it has similar themes and a similar po-mo feel to Bolaño but lacks the viscera, the fire, the occasional transcendent beauty, the off-putting sections, the magnetism of the best Bolaño. After pestering ToB commentariat superstar and all-around trusted reader neighbors about her opinion (which is that it never gets interesting) I feel comfortable letting this one go unfinished. When I was younger I tried to read all of the entrants but I am getting too old for that nonsense. Why bother with lesser imitations when I could just reread The Savage Detectives?  Thematic pairings:  haven’t read it yet, but maybe How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
  2. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – It’s been ages since I read this book (read: a year) and it made so little impression on me that I can barely remember it. If it makes the play-in I’ll take another look at it; I still have a copy. As for its chances of making the play-in:  I would think good, but I haven’t  yet read Woke Up Lonely.
  3. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton – I read this as soon as it was crowned this year’s Booker in part because it sounded like a wheelhouse novel for me but also because I knew it would thus be a ToB lock. Despite sounding like a novel I would usually love — nineteenth century historical! set in a place I know nothing about! with multiple narrators and a tricky, intricate structure! mystery! adventure! gold! opium!! — this was a struggle to get into. I chipped away a couple of pages every night for ages (read: a month) before it finally caught my attention enough to finish it up in a couple of sit down marathon reading sessions. I probably would not have finished it were it not guaranteed a spot in the ToB. I am marginally glad that I didn’t abandon it, but it’s still a book with more promise than execution. The much-admired structure is one of the largest of many problematics; it doomed the book to carry on a good 100 (or more? I shall check) pages beyond what its (rather flimsy) plot could sustain. While some of the characters were charming and/or interesting, they were unfortunately not the people at the heart of the plot:  most damningly, one of its two female characters is a whore with about the same level of personality as Bella from Twilight while the other is a one-note villain. My final summation:  there is probably a good book in here somewhere but the pretentious, gimmicky structure buried it; furthermore, I couldn’t really tell if this was trying to be an a high falutin’ Literary tome or just a good, plot-and-character-driven story and the attempt to be both makes it somewhat fuzzy as neither the quality of the writing nor the characters/plot were strong enough to make it either. A good editor and a clearer sense of the story’s identity would have elevated this book enormously. In its favor, the more I read of the other entrants the better The Luminaries looks in hindsight. I have found myself thinking back fondly to its moderately well-developed sense of place and time. Thematic pairing:  The Son — they are both massive historical fictions with multiple viewpoints and colonial themes. Of the two, I prefer The Son both personally and for the ToB.
  4. The Dinner by Herman Koch – Look, it’s not that I dislike books with unlikable protagonists. I don’t read in search of imaginary BFFs for myself — my friend-slots are well filled both by real people and by fictionals like Harriet Vane. (Harriet! Write me! Dying to hear what you and Peter have been working on. Are you still in France? Can you recommend a good translation of Dante? Please write soon — I miss you! love, your friend, Not Alice.) My problem with The Dinner is actually that the characters were not unlikable enough, or at least not in the right way. I had a glimmer that maybe Koch was trying to expose and indict underlying fascist ideals still extant in European culture. If this is the case, awesome! Great idea! More on this later. Unfortunately, this interesting notion is spoiled by the conclusion. The “and they’re all psychopaths!1!” twist at the end of a thriller is my least favourite thing in this genre. It’s so boring and expected and it has the effect of immediately leeching out any hint of moral complexity. This isn’t literature; it’s the European equivalent of a NYT bestselling mystery novel, a Michael Connelly or a Harlan Coben. I’ve read my fair share of both of these authors, but I’d never put either of them up against literary fiction. I am positive that there were better books in translation published last year and it’s a disappointment that this is what the ToB chose as the most significant. Thematic pairings: The People in the Trees since both have off-kilter narrators; of these two, I’d give it to the Yanagihara by a hair.
  5. Long Division by Kiese Laymon – This is the other half-finished book. Unlike the Alarcón, I will finish this, and soon. Holding out forming any opinions at all until I finish it. Regardless of how it turns out, this is a title whose inclusion I’m very pleased about: I hadn’t heard of it, it’s outside my usual reading path, and it is absolutely worth my time. Thematic pairing:  I really hope Laymon and McBride aren’t matched up against each other just because they both feature black teenage boys as protagonists, but I fear they might be. Even though I haven’t finished Long Division, I would still prefer it to win. My dream pairing for this book is against Eleanor & Park. I would love to see it take that flimsy YA book out early since Laymon deftly illustrates the differences between YA and adult as genres. His narrator is believable, his sentences are dynamic, he actually considers race in America instead of just pretending to, and Long Division feels rich in culture and place in a way that E&P never does. I’ll be pretty damn happy if they’re set up against each other early. It might also work well against A Tale for the Time Being because both deal with time travel or multiple universes or something.
  6. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride – I know too much about this time period to enjoy this book. That’s the only explanation I can find for my rather intense dislike. Unfunny, repetitive, poorly written (in inconsistent dialect — one of my least favourite things ever!), hateful (I will never forgive McBride’s portrayal of Frederick Douglass). I cannot believe this won the National Book Award! It is one of my most disliked books of 2013 — I would take the bafflingly popular The Flamethrowers over this win. I never had an opinion about McBride before (tried to read his memoir once and put it down quickly but without judgment) but he is dead to me now. The NBA sure is getting close to being an award I have no interest in following. It has been mightily inconsistent in recent years.
  7. The Son by Philip Meyer – As a fan of historical fiction and history, I liked this book. I feel comfortable labeling it my favourite of the Tournament’s historicals this year. Most of the details were accurate, and I was very excited to see that a good portion of its plot is about the early 20th century persecution of hispanics in Texas. I don’t know what (if anything) the notorious history books of Texas have to say about this period of our country’s past, but it isn’t nearly well-known covered in states to the north and west ,where I received my educations. This book also has the best sense of place of any that I’ve read so far, though that may just be because it beautifully describes the open skies and dusty desserts that are basically a primal part of my soul. However, as a fan of books with complex (not necessarily strong — just complex) female characters, I did not like this book. As a fan of novels with multiple narrators who are all equally well written and thought-provoking, I did not like this book. As a person who would truly like to read a fictionalized account of the details and drama surrounding the rise of the oil industry in Texas, I did not like this book. Thematic pairings:  The Luminaries, as above.
  8. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki – I would not have finished this book if I’d picked it up outside of Tournament reading. I viscerally despised Nao’s narration at first:  the sexualized, kitschy-cute Japanese schoolgirl is a disgusting trope. But as I went on I either became acclimated to her sections or they got better, because for a bit in the middle I quite enjoyed it and, like “Ruth,” worried about Nao’s fate. Unlike the multitude of goodreads reviewers, I didn’t mind the “Ruth” sections because I liked her Asperger-ish husband, “Oliver,” and his encyclopedic musings about nature. But “Ruth” is a terrible, weak character; she seems uniquely stupid, a trait that “Oliver” highlights by needing to explain everything to her. Because “Ruth” is both character and, of course, author-stand-in, this gives the book an unpleasant air:  everything is overexplained. It’s tied with The Goldfinch as containing most unnecessary thematic denouement. I like magical realism, but the effect is utterly spoiled the instant the author has various characters figure out the key to the magic and spend tens of pages explaining it to each other. I described this to my housemate as similar to a bad Murakami. “Ruth’s” lack of intelligence assumes that the reader is also unintelligent which I despise in a book. Authors! Stop overexplaining your ideas! Or if you must explain, don’t just provide a wikipedia-level summary of Schrodinger’s Cat — everyone has read that article on the great free encyclopedia. Elevate and complicate your ideas! Thematic pairing in the ToB:  The People in the Trees because they both use meta-textual structure in which one character footnotes another’s text? Life After Life, because they both deal with multiple worlds? If the former, I don’t know which book I’d give it to; both were problematic. In the latter, I guess I’d prefer Life After Life simply because it doesn’t talk down to the reader quite as much — though I think the Ozeki probably had better characters. Or maybe it could be Eleanor & Park since both books deal with bullied teenage girls? If that’s the case, A Tale for the Time Being wins easily; Nao was more distinctive than either Eleanor or Park, and the bullying was integrated into her overall story and character arc instead of just existing to add faux obstacles and to heighten the pathos and misery (and thus the feels, as the kids say) of the book. Or will it be The Lowland, which I haven’t read yet and don’t look forward to, because both are set in both Asia and America? Despite its flaws, this is one of the more interesting picks just from the multitude of potential pairings it allows.
  9. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – YA books are not the same as adult books. It is unfair to compare children’s literature to adult because they (usually) have very different goals. I detest the trend of including YA in the ToB. Frankie Landau Banks was exceptional; she should have been a one-off. This is one of the titles I resent the most; its position should have gone to Americanah. Or to a genre book for grownups — Jenny & Kelly had the idea of pitting Stephen King against his son Joe Hill in the play-in round, a notion that I love and am now grieving because it didn’t happen. (NOS4A2 was great fun!) I do not enjoy being that sort of reader, the one who minces about looking down her nose at books. Truly, I don’t:  my bookstore days made me egalitarian. I’m glad kids are reading, and I recognize that I might have loved this book when I was 14 and bullied. However, I am going to be extremely cruel to this slight, insufficient, vaguely racist, Twilight-ish teen romance come the Tournament. Keep an eye out; I’ll be the one frothing at the mouth in the corner while everyone who remembers my thoughts on The Fault in Our Stars last year will roll their eyes and give me a wide berth. Pairings:  as above, I hope it’s Long Division and that this goes away. It’s hard to say, though; a rather ridiculous amount of these books have teen protagonists. Whatever it is, E&P is my pick for the most likely zombie. Needless to say, it shall not get my vote.
  10. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – I won’t lie:  I read this book the way that I occasionally blow through a batch of home-baked cookies:  in a gluttonous haze that lasted no longer than 24 hours. Similar to a cookie binge, it immediately left me feeling undernourished and nauseated. I may have much more to say about this one later, either in the comments or in a post of its own. Until then:  most overrated book of 2013? Most likely to do very well in the ToB? The book that brought me most fully into agreement with Francine Prose than I ever have been and may ever be? I say yes to all. Thematic pairing:  any of the ridiculous amounts of “kid protagonist”  books, yawn.
  11. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara – This one also deserves a post of its own, if I can somehow manage to recreate the rambling, incoherent, pancake-fueled raving that I subjected my gentleman friend to the night that I finished it. I appreciate that this book was at least ambitious in its themes, but I am still unsure if it was a partial success or utter failure. The fact that I cannot decide is probably a good sign. This is one of the more interesting reads so far (if only because everything else was so dreadful). There were lots of problems, though:  plot, pacing, tone, believability, and more. Here is a goodreads review that covers just some of the issues I had with the book. I will try to organize my thoughts on it, but until then, I will only say:  I appreciate that Yanagihara tried to mimic the language and structure of scientific writing, but I don’t think she succeeded at either capturing it or parodying it convincingly. This book does not do for anthropology what Possession did for English scholars. I kind of wish this book had been written by A.S. Byatt or someone who is better at miming academic styles; I would have found “magical turtles!” a lot less insipid if they’d been dressed with more stylistic flourishes. I am not ashamed to admit one of my essential weaknesses as a reader of fiction:  provocative ideas matter more when they are presented in pretty prose. Thematic pairing:  see above. Chances:  depend on how the judge it draws feels about Nabokov, I guess.

I will do “books I have not read” later. It’s fairly easy to deduce what they are. I still somewhat hope to finish more books and to post longer responses to some of these titles, but school started last week and I’m immediately subsumed in history reading. How many articles can one person read about nationalism in a year?!

¹Every place that I occupy, whether literally or imaginatively, is dusty and book-cluttered.

²Tumblr, as silly as it is, serves as an excellent commonplace book, a digital version of the small physical books, full of borrowed words and images, that I used to make with paper and glue. Mixing in my own sentences disturbs the hermetic pleasure I get from flipping (or scrolling) through the record.

³After years of liking movies and harboring intense passion for a small handful of films, I’ve begun work on transforming myself into a cineast–I just need to make enough time to watch the 115-ish best films of all time.

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I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about John D’Agata’s The Lifespan of a Fact for about a week and a half now, but it’s gotten so much attention that I don’t have anything new to add. I keep running into articles that articulate my feelings towards the book very neatly. Still, I remain disappointed, and really need to try to work some things out about this despite the redundancy of it all.  I was fairly excited to read this book when I first heard about it.  I really enjoyed The Lost Origins of the Essay precisely for the generous definition it gave to the form. It’s always struck me as a fallacy, this obsession we have in American culture with Truth and the way it manifests in our entertainment and our art. Sure, certain revelations of falsification are deplorable–any false Holocaust memoir, for instance, or the Love and Consequences kerfuffle–but for the most part I feel (or, perhaps, always thought that I felt) that we should all just recognize that Absolute Truth is an impossible expectation given the utter subjectivity of human experience and stop devoting so much anxiety to it already. I hate the term “creative nonfiction” but if we need to invent new subgenres to comfort ourselves on this matter then fine, whatever, let’s do that. Here stands my quick summary of my default opinion on the matter of veracity in nonfiction.

To his credit, D’Agata has challenged my preexisting notions, though probably not in the way he intended given that I would have been more willing to make his argument before I read his book. More on this in a moment. First, a summary–as if you don’t already know!–of the project and a bitter mulling over one of my main problems with it.

The Lifespan of a Fact originally existed as a roughly 5,000 word essay, titled “If a Boy Jumps Off a Building in Vegas Does He Make a Sound?”, originally intended for publication in Harper’s, offered next to the Atlantic, and finally reaching print in the Believer. As the title suggests, it is D’Agata’s attempt at a literary autopsy of a teenager’s death and an interrogation of the taboos, the cultural silences, that surround the issue of suicide; also as suggested by the title it is stylistically a very typical piece for Harper’s:  it’s got the goal of raising social awareness about some issue (though it isn’t as aggressive or successful as many articles in this magazine or others), attempted through a familiar stylistic mixture of apparently factual reportage–interviews, statistics (there’s a staggering lot of numbers in “Boy” for such a short piece)–and personal reflection, culminating in a dramatic finale that’s meant to end on a haunting note and stick in your head. I read the essay cold before I read Lifespan but it isn’t really necessary:  I’ve read this essay before, you’ve read this essay before. It’s fine, sometimes moving, but not particularly beautiful and too short to delve deeply into any of its issues.

It’s fine, a perfectly serviceable note in a typical Harper’s lineup, but for one problem:  many of its facts, both small and large, are either consciously massaged into a version of the truth more amenable to D’Agata or flat out invented. Hence its troubled publishing history, and its eventual resurrection as Lifespan:  the Believer’s acceptance of it was conditional on its close interrogation by a thorough intern/fact-checker. The Lifespan of a Fact contains the excruciatingly detailed findings of the diligent fact-checker as well as the occasional correspondence between author and intern discussing and arguing about the validity of D’Agata’s changes and the necessity, or lack thereof, of hard fact in nonfiction. It is billed and presented as a conversation, which naturally invites the reader to join in and take a stance on this very interesting topic. Obviously I was excited to read the book–who would not be?

My interest turned to disappointment when, shortly after publication I believe, D’Agata admitted readily that the conversation between the two authors was “largely invented for the sake of the book,” with personalities amplified on both sides for added drama. Even most of the fact checking was done later for the book’s publication rather than the essay’s (NPR). I suppose I’m one of the simple, shallow readers that D’Agata scorns, because this knowledge immediately raised my dander. I only picked the book up, in the end, because the library had it on shelf (such a rarity that I always take it as fate) and I was morbidly curious. Let my clarify my ire:  it’s not a childish tantrum over merely being lied to. It’s a sense of insult over not being trusted as a reader to objectively consider the facts and make my own conclusions. The entire project is specious; the book purports to be an intellectual inquiry between two opposing opinions, but in fact it is a secret tract. (And, yes, I consider it “secret” even though the true nature of the text is easy enough to find online because I do recognize that not every reader has my tendency to obsessively google every book immediately upon completion.) On one hand it is a dirty trick that suggests that D’Agata has more in common with his (unpleasant, asshattish) “persona” than he might like us to believe. But it also suggests that his argument is actually very weak, if he must employ such tactics to make it rather than let it stand on its own against participitatory reading and discussion; it seems like an attempt to shut down any opposition (“HAha, you liked that!? We made it up! My point is proven! Art trumps reality!”) before it’s given a chance to speak. I am actually a little surprised that the book has generated as much interesting commentary as it has. It probably does not deserve it.

Misgivings aplenty, I did read it. Fingal’s persona is fairly easy to sympathize with if just because D’Agata’s is so self-satisfied and condescending, but it’s pretty clear that the “gotcha” trap is located in his character:  he’s painted as myopically obsessed with even the most trivial of facts, unable to shrug off small adjustments as probably-unimportant. I think that the expected reader-response is eye-rolling because,  honestly, who cares if certain vans are pink or purple? They’re not dissimilar colors, and they both start with P, after all. (Though I don’t quite buy D’Agata’s stock response, that certain changes increase the aesthetic value of his sentences; he’s a strong enough writer but rarely blows me away on a sentence level.) This is a set-up for what D’Agata obviously hopes will be a recognition of a common bias applied towards fact in nonfiction, this idea that there’s a hierarchy of necessary truths, that some facts matter while others don’t. I found a confirmation for this in the NPR spotlight, where D’Agata says, “I don’t think it’s OK for us to say, ‘In your memoir about growing up and liking pie, it’s completely OK to alter the facts, but when you’re dealing with huge issues like suicide or nuclear waste or whatever, it’s not OK.’ I mean, the subject in this essay is amped up to get us to pay attention.” That’s his party line, and it’s a big part of what the meta-manipulation of his book is setting out to prove.

This crux is the thing I’ve thought about the most. Because I completely disagree. I do not think all facts are, indeed, equal in importance; there is a hierarchy of necessary fact in both nonfiction and certain kinds of fiction, and it’s an impossibly messy and subjective issue. I, for instance, was very bothered by his fabrication of details in the boy’s suicide, particularly the artistic tampering with the time it took for the fall. This is absolutely a subjective sensitivity of mine:  my family, both sides, has been haunted by what seems to me like a higher than average tendency towards suicide for generations. It’s not for lack of trying that it is not the leading cause of death among us. It’s easy enough for me to imagine a story like this written about my cousin who died a little over a year ago and the thought is upsetting–and I have nowhere near the emotional trauma of her husband, son, or parents. D’Agata wants the emotional and social impact of the essay’s claim to truth without any of the practical considerations or interpersonally ethical ramifications. I am sure he’d consider it simpleminded of me for just feeling (but not being able to coherently explain at this point) why it seems horribly wrong to distort details of a stranger’s tragic death for the sake of a not-spectacular magazine “social problem” magazine article.

D’Agata’s faith in the higher purpose of art, in his sense of himself as a very serious artist speaking to a larger truth, justifies any changes he sees fit to make. I don’t agree, but I wonder:  would I feel differently if his essay were better, or if my particular connection to his subject matter were less personal? It’s possible, which troubles me. I’ve never been interested in learning about factual inaccuracies in David Foster Wallace–the sheer delight and intelligence, the strength of that wonderful voice, is more than enough to compensate for any massaged facts. The thought disturbs me a bit, and I can’t get it out of my head; the issue probably just is a messy, subjective, case-by-case problem, but I wish I could come up with an ethics of nonfiction for myself. Because I am convinced that there are cases, many of them, where it would be wrong to distort facts–mostly to do with the intent of the work and whether or not it involves people who may not, for whatever reason, be able to speak for themselves. For clarification, I keep thinking of some of the nonfiction books that I often sell with my personal stamp of approval and fervid recommendation. I really don’t care whether Annie Dillard is 100% true to exact objective fact–it wouldn’t change the intent or impact of the book if she recounted an incorrect number of beavers at Tinker Creek so long as she captures something beautiful and abstractly true about her personal experience and about humans and nature in a more abstract sense. That’s a situation where D’Agata’s philosophy is absolutely apt. But I would be devastated–betrayed, perhaps–were I to discover any fact massaging in Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, the chronicle of a tragic cultural clash over one child’s medical treatment; part of what makes that book so powerful is the balance that it strikes between human empathy and journalistic integrity. An author like Fadiman, or perhaps Rebecca Skloot, is writing for a greater truth than aesthetics or the communication of a personal experience–as, it seemed to me, D’Agata was in his original essay–and a faithfulness to fact can only increase the importance of such works. As Hannah Goldfield, a fact checker for the New Yorker, said on their blog, “The conceit that one must choose facts or beauty—even if it’s beauty in the name of ‘Truth’ or a true ‘idea’—is preposterous. A good writer—with the help of a fact-checker and an editor, perhaps—should be able to marry the two, and a writer who refuses to even try is, simply, a hack. If I’ve learned one thing at this job, it’s that facts can be quite astonishing.”

I’m glad this is a discussion that’s taking place even if this particular spur is not particularly worthwhile. I look forward to reading more essays about the issue that are less driven by agenda than D’Agata’s offering. In addition to the ones I’ve already linked, here are some of the responses to his book that I particularly enjoyed: Lucas Man at The Rumpus; Lee Gutkind, a colleague of D’Agata’s as editor of nonfiction anthologies, at the LA Review of Books and Ander Monson at the same; Max Ross at Open Letters Monthly; and Matthew Cheney, who proposes the diabolocally perfect dream of a Werner Herzog documentary on Lifespan, at Strange Horizons.

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Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov (Melville House’s International Crime series)

Death; or, The Story:  Viktor Zolotaryov is a failed writer approaching destitution when destiny drops in his lap a dream job:  penning obituraries, or obelisks, of still-living artists, dignitaries, politicians–anyone and everyone of distinction in Kiev. As any discerning reader will immediately guess, this is a dodgy task with dire implications:  the obelisks portend certain doom for their subjects. Viktor is slightly dumb and deeply passive; he spends most of the book in denial about the results of his work, and when he is forced to confront its grisly consequences, he is disinclined to act. A doormat, he is wont to agree with any demand asked of him. This leads to diverse plottish hijinks, some predictable and some absurd. It’s possible that this is a funny book? I could never decide. If it is funny, it is a dark humor, deadpan and understated despite the oddity of its premise. I can see the possibility of a successful film adaptation.

The Penguin; or, Characters:  Kurkov has not produced a mystery in the traditional plot-driven sense; really, the book succeeds more as an existential character study. At the outset, Viktor’s life is devoid of human contact, and though he acquires enemies, acquaintances, and dependents, he remains fundamentally disconnected from them all. I am not denouncing him as a sociopath and don’t think that Kurkov is either–most likely this delineates a sort of post-Soviet ennui and social breakdown. For Viktor is not incapable of developing emotional bonds. It just so happens that his deepest relationship is not with another human but with Misha, the penguin he adopted from a zoo too destitute to feed its denizens. Misha is ineffable; unlike a dog or a cat, whose desires and personalities are easily enough discerned, he is a tuxedo’d depository for various human interpretation. For Viktor, Misha is the ideal life companion, more perfectly suited to his lifestyle than any human could ever be: Misha is dolorous but noble, loyal but discreet with his affection, dependent upon Viktor for food and care but always distinctly himself, as apt to shuffle away to stand in corners as he is to lay his head on his master’s lap. But this is only Viktor’s perception; for others, the interpretation of Misha is different. A dying penguinologist diagnoses Misha as depressive, doomed to pine fruitlessly for the arctic vistas of the south pole until an early death. A child, deserted by her father into Viktor’s care, views Misha as her only playmate and friend. And Viktor’s disreputable business acquaintances see Misha as a perfect emblem for their activities, a distortion of Viktor’s gentle pet that leads to disastrous events. I have no direct quotes to add to this write-up because, in a flash of inspiration, I lent it to one of my favourites of the bookish curmudgeons with whom I particularly bond, an older woman who is constantly deriding the unbearable seriousness of my reading choices. I’m looking forward to discovering whether Death and the Penguin is a good fit for her; I have a hunch it will be.

Dogma, Lars Iyer

Surely you’ve heard of Lars Iyer and his projected trilogy from Melville House, of which Dogma is the second (though it could easily be read out of order as the first; a chronological progression of events, these books are not)? No? Well then. Iyer chronicles the dubious friendship between an unlikely duo of dissolute philosophers:  the narrator, Lars, whose few objectively determinable characteristics include his lineage (Dutch and Indian), his religion (Hinduism) and his dogged passivity; and W., his best friend and foremost detractor. Both Spurious and Dogma take the form of a mostly one-sided dialogue consisting largely of W.’s diatribe against his friend’s deficiencies–when he’s being kind, he refers to Lars as “Diogenes gone mad”; when he is not, everything about Lars is open to disection, from his physique to his intelligence to his lifestyle. These heaps of abuse are interspersed with philosophy and underpinned by a presentiment of apocalyptic doom. As with the first book, dire portents lurk at the edges:  the creeping damp of Spurious has been joined by a plague of rats that colonize Lars’ domicile. Is this yet another dimension of the demerits cataloged by W., proof of Lars’ disgusting slovenliness, or is it a harbinger of the world’s end?

What’s the deal with this relationship, anyway? Is Lars as despicable as W. makes him out to be? If so, why does W. deign to be friends with him? (A question posed constantly by W. himself.) If not, why does Lars endure the abuse? And what about the distinct structure, the one-sided dialogue, with Lars doggedly reporting every last diatribe of W.’s, only occasionally recording his own responses, only sometimes giving context? I doubt that these questions matter in the least, though there was a glimmer of a key provided at the end of this book, but they are a consideration portion of the book’s draw.

Some reviewers have deprecated Dogma for being insufficiently different from Spurious; for the record, I disagree. The first book was largely concerned with the pair’s obsession with immortality and their power struggle over which of them is Kafka and which is Brod (an argument haunted by the dread that both may be Brods); Dogma sees them in action, striving to achieve the longed-for assurance of a legacy. At its start we find the duo on a lecture tour of America; its intent is to disseminate their enlightened philosophy to the wilds of America, but it quickly devolves into drinking, bickering, and drawing cartoons of America, represented by Tom Sawyer and Moby Dick cavorting in the Mississippi. The transatlantic adventure is discontinued soon enough, but back in England our heroes embark on another project:  the invention of Dogma, half discourse style, half religion. Chapters are devoted to the defining of Dogma. Dogma is, among other things, spartan, full of pathos, sincere, collaborative, and world-historical. It is, to say the least, very few things that W. and Lars appear to be in their day-to-day dialogue with one another. They wrangle through the dictums of their intellectual movement, stating and rescinding them; W. despairs and emits diatribes against Lars; and all the while the damp and the rats continue their ominous take-over of Lars’ flat…

The end comes as a disappointment. I would happily have continued on in the company of W. and Lars, and I am most desirous to read the last book. Will my questions be given closure? I do not know, and I do not particularly care; these books are delightful in their solipsism regardless of how the trilogy closes.

The Dog of the South, Charles Portis

It is a great temptation to diagnose the various characters in The Dog of the South, my second read from Charles Portis. They are outlandish, Characters-with-a-capital-C, and though they are never dull their outlandish distinction was a deterrent against emotional attachment. It is difficult for me to discuss this book without the dominating context of True Grit, a novel that I love very much. I dislike comparative reviews, so I will say simply this before moving on:  Ray Midge is no Mattie Ross; Dog did not depose True Grit from its place in my heart. Where Mattie and her disciples are wholly real to me, Ray and the people he meets are too pointedly odd to bridge the distance created by determined quirk. This is a minor quibble–I was happy with every minute I spent with Dog and will not disagree with anyone who calls Portis a writer of neglected American classics.

Like Mattie, Ray is on a quest; unlike that most dauntless girl, his has considerably lower stakes:  he is driving through Mexico, following a trail of credit card receipts, in search of his car, which has been stolen by his runaway wife, Norma, and her aspiring-revolutionary of a first husband, Dupree. It is the vehicle that is Ray’s dominant concern; to the return of his wife he is strikingly diffident. Her desertion is warranted, one suspects, and in a striking moment of awareness, Ray expresses awareness of his shortcomings and sympathy to her dissatisfaction:  “I should have paid more attention to Norma. I should have talked to her and listened to her but I didn’t do it. A timely word here and there might have worked wonders. I knew she was restless, and anxious to play a more active part in life. She spoke in just those terms, and there were other signals as well” (5). Despite some regret, it is the car Ray desires, for the replacement they have left him is a disheartening wreck in comparison to his beloved Ford Torino:

It was a compact car, a rusty little piece of basic transportation with a V-6 engine. The thing ran well enough and it seemed eager to please but I couldn’t believe the Buick engineers ever had their hearts in a people’s car. Dupree had shamefully neglected it. There was about a quarter-turn of slack in the steering wheel and I had to swing it wildly back and forth in a childlike burlesque of motoring. After a day or two I got the hang of it but the violent arm movements made me look like a lunatic. I had to stay alert every second, every instant, to make small corrections. That car had 74,000 miles on it and the speedometer was broken. There was a hole in the floor on the driver’s side and when I drove over something white the flash between my feet made me jump. That’s enough on the car for now.

No noble steed, that one! Despite its decrepitude, Ray develops a fondness for the machine; it is soon clear that he is more capable of forming attachment to objects than to people. He’s too self-centered for relationships; everyone, from his absconded wife to the friend he makes on the road–Reo Symes, a disbarred doctor determined to enact a devious fraud against his missionary mother in order to attain his fortune–is incidental to his own consciousness. This kind of narrative total immersion is typical of Portis, from my diminutive sample, but the disjuncture between this particular narrator’s view and how things may actually be is especially distinct. Ray is a failure, a dilettante who has never been able to settle on anything, but he views himself as distinguished from the rest of the populace, an unrecognized genius. His delusions of grandeur are often hilarious, as when he compares himself to America’s founding father: “I had enormous respect for General Washington, as who doesn’t, but I also liked the man, believing as I did that we shared many of the same qualities. Perhaps I should say ‘some of the same qualities’ because in many ways we are not at all alike. He, after all, had only read two books on warfare, Bland’s Exercises and Sim’s Military Guide, and I had a read a thousand. And of course he was a big man while I am compact of build” (141).

Ray’s denseness about his own deficiencies find a mirror in Dr. Leo Symes, owner of the brokendown bus called the Dog of the South, who becomes his traveling companion. Symes is a distorted future version of Ray, full of stories of how he has been wronged, obsessed with elaborate schemes to attain the potential he never manifested. Also, Symes is obsessed with one John Selmer Dix, the author of self-help books for salesmen, and is convinced that Dix’s texts hold the keys to understanding, well, everything. I mention this because it highlights one of several shared trait between the two drifters:  both are convinced that everything can be distilled to an essential right and wrong way of doing things. They are underdogs, dreamers incapable of joining reality long enough to demand results from their goals. Everyone loves an underdog, but these two are so very delusional that it’s uncomfortable to observe their mishaps. It is possible that they are modern versions of Don Quixote, but unlike in the tale of that venerable forebearer, there’s never a sense of a defined reality from which the characters are departing. Everything and everyone is deranged, events are disjointed from a traditional sense of cause and effect. The picaresque chaos of it all is made even more distinct by its characters belief that, beneath the seeming meaninglessness, there is a correct way to live. It’s a book that’s supposed to be funny, I know, and, as I hope my meager quoting displays, it was marvelously deadpan, but I found its overall effect to be disquieting and nihilistic. It could just be me.

In fact, supposedly funny books often have the side effect of making me very sad. I have fiddled with days on this post trying to say something about the why of this with no coherent result, so I shall give it up for now. Of these three, only Dogma didn’t depress me–probably because so much anxiety and absurd intellectual distress is built into the book itself.

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In December I received a postcard from my brilliant and well-read friend L. One-lined and cryptic, it read only, “When will Javier Marias win the Nobel Prize?”

Because I am merely a pallid striver in emulation of L.’s wideranged intellect, my immediate response was, “Who?” After google-educating myself–Marias is a Spanish novelist, translator, and lauded op-ed journalist; he counts among his admirers the illustrious Coetzee and Rushdie; Scott Esposito chose one of his books for his 2010 group read; he is in fact frequently bandied about as a strong candidate for the Nobel though less than half of his novels have been translated into English–I called her immediately to confess my deficit and request a recommendation on where to start. After lengthy rhapsodizing and extolling the quality of everything, she finally offered up a title:  A Heart So White.

Because I could not find any to buy locally and am disinclined to read difficult fiction in e-format, I turned to the library, which took its characteristically plodding time in procuring a copy; as a result, it was not til February that I held the book in my hands. Once in my possession, the book took a remarkably long time for me to read through, not because it was bad or dull or overly difficult, but because I kept getting caught in rereading loops that propelled me back to the beginning:  an unusual experience, for I am typically a plowingly linear reader on my first go through a book. Something about this one–a labrynthal quality of the prose, perhaps, or just half-terrified overidentification with the narrator–burrowed alarmingly into my brain and pulled me into its world. I loved it. This is the type of reading experience that doesn’t happen to me very often as an adult and any book that provides it is immediately propelled into an exalted category.

At its outset, A Heart So White seems, at first, to be a mystery of the sort that delves into the uncovering of sordid family secrets. It begins, hauntingly, with the unwanted image of a suicide:

I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra, and aimed her father’s gun at her heart …When they heard the shot, some five minutes after the girl had left the table, her father didn’t get up at once, but stayed there for a few seconds, paralysed, his mouth still full of food, not daring to chew or swallow, far less to spit the food out on to his plate

It’s a devastating opening, beautifully done, balanced tautly between the apathetic confusion of the servants, the polite horror of the luncheon’s guests, and the incomprehension of the no-longer-a-girl’s family. The death itself, the body, is described closely, but what remains strongest in my memory are the small details of the surrounding scene:  an ice-cream cake brought out by the maid who has not realized the occurrence of any tragedy; the father with his mouth still full of food, unable to swallow or spit, as he stands above his daughter’s body. It is all so utterly vivid and heartbreaking that I still am surprised that the whole episode is barely eight pages in my copy. These details are half a ploy, an aspect of the narrator’s stated desire not to know this tale, a conscious effort to slide the gaze away from the dead young woman.

I reread this opening chapter many times, as I’ve said; in part, I kept coming back to it as an anchor, a touchstone, to remind myself of what the novel might intend. I am glad that I did, that I ingrained this stark opening deeply into my mind; otherwise I might have been caught by the radically different narrative tone of the rest of the book and lost the thread of mystery that, despite many discursions, proved to be the frame of the book. On page nine the historical account ends and focus is turned the “I” of the first sentence:  Juan, the nephew of the dead young woman, is a thirty-four-year old interpreter fluent in four languages. He has just been married–a point of great surprise to every other character, who all consider him to be a natural life-long bachelor–and he is on his honeymoon. Though he believes that he loves his wife, Luisa, he is shadowed by an inexplicable sense of dread, a conviction that something in his marriage is fated to go terribly wrong. Ill omens lurk everywhere, a sense of dread and danger underlies actions and thoughts:  will young Luisa fall prey to these vague threats? will Juan? is Juan suffering under a family curse, or are the threats manifested from his own inability to commit to his wife? will their relationship survive, or are they caught in a spiral, doomed to repeat the tragic history of Juan’s parents?

This description makes the book sound quite plotful; I assure you, it is not. These questions are present, yes, and they are addressed and resolved satisfactorily by the end, but they very quickly receded from my interest, replaced by the solipsistic, stream-of-conscious fretting that is Juan’s primary reaction to the various taut encounters that make up the book. Though the book takes its title from Macbeth, from a line Lady Macbeth says to her husband after helping him to conceal his crime — “My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white,” a reference that was my first glimmer that guilt and complicity are two of Marias’ major themes — Juan reminds me of Hamlet in his indecision, his passivity, his propensity to react to every situation with a hasty retreat into soliloquies of paralyzed anxiety. Juan is obsessed with the transience of experience and, as a translator, seems compelled to hear and understand and remember; at the same time, he is tormented by the futility of this impulse, by the subjectivity of reality:

I have a tendency … to want to understand everything that people say and everything I hear, both at work and outside, even at a distance, even if it’s in one of the innumerable languages I don’t know, even if it’s an indistinguishable murmur or an imperceptible whisper, even if it would be better that I didn’t understand and what’s said is not intended for my ears, or is said precisely so that I won’t catch it. I can disconnect, but only in certain irresponsible states of mind or by making a great effort, and that’s why sometimes I’m glad that murmurs really are indistinguishable and whispers imperceptible and that there are so many languages that are strange and impenetrable to me, because then I can rest.

This is a book of eavesdropping and voyeurism, of conversations heard through walls, stray sly comments that may or may not be purposefully dropped, of correspondences consumed by characters other than their intended recipients. I kept thinking of Bakhtin, the literary theorist I spent the most time with in college, and his theories of dialogism:  if ever a book is highly dialogic this one is; it’s a book to make me long for academia. The mystery unfolds through these layers of dialogism with a sharp interpersonal violence; all information is unwelcome to our beleaguered Juan. Despite his self-description as pathologically eager to absorb every piece of information, Juan’s first sentence avowal that he does “not want to know” is a more apt description of his existence throughout the book; much of the tension comes from his unwillingness to say or do anything at all. I am reminded of Hamlet in Juan because his passivity is elevated beyond a mere character trait to a sort of frantic existential angst:  he is tormented by the dialectic between wanting to understand and the futility of communication; the desire to record and remember, to create a coherent narrative of a life, juxtaposed against the pointless repetition and subjectivity of existence; the inherent instability of both personality and reality:

Sometimes I have the feeling that nothing that happens happens, because nothing happens without interruption, nothing lasts or endures or is ceaselessly remembered, and even the most monotonous and routine of existences, by its apparent repetitiveness, gradually cancels itself out, negates itself, until nothing is anything and no one is anyone they were before, and the weak wheel of the world is pushed along by forgetful beings who hear and see and know what is not said, never happens, is unknowable and unverifiable. What takes place is identical to what doesn’t take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us is identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience identical to what we never try, and yet we spend our lives in a process of choosing and rejecting and selecting, in drawing a line to separate these identical things and make of our story a unique story that we can remember and that can be told. We pour all our intelligence and our feelings and our enthusiasm into the task of discriminating between things that will all be made equal, if they haven’t already been, and that’s why we’re so full of regrets and lost opportunities, of confirmations and reaffirmations and opportunities grasped, when the truth is that nothing is affirmed and everything is constantly in the process of being lost. Or perhaps there never was anything.

The above passage recurs throughout the book, elaborated each time with new–but always thematically coherent, linked through their relation to the larger Macbethian idea of action, inaction, and personal responsibility–questions and worries. I expect that some readers might find this repetition tiresome and annoying, but I loved it; it is a symphonic, polyphonic buildup, utterly accurate to my experience of this kind of ongoing obsessive anxiety. It is, to say the least, very intense, but luckily the book has some genuinely delightful episodes (my favourite: a wonderful scene–the first time that Juan and Luisa, also an interpreter and a highly respected one, meet while sharing a job–of willful misinterpretation between two political dignitaries) to add levity to the mixture of fretfulness and dark plot. Also–and luckily, because Juan really is a putz however much I might identify with his maunderings–there are some great side characters:  there is Ranz, Juan’s father, debonaire and firm in his withholding of information, cultured and charming despite his tragic past and his scurrilous business ties; Custardoy the Younger, an art forger, undesirable family friend, lecher and vulgarian and lifelong nemesis to Juan; Berta, Juan’s friend, former lover and fellow translator, a lonely expatriate adept at manipulating her hapless ex-lover into collusion. Even Luisa, the young wife, emerges as an interesting character, though this is almost accidental:  if there is an ebb point to my enthusiasm over this book it is in her characterization and that of their marriage, both of which are weak. I am inclined to think this an intentional choice, meant to illustrate something about Juan and his perhaps congenital inability to exist within a romantic relationship; even so, I do wish that there were more reasons given for their marriage beyond basic commonalities of both enjoying movies and cigarettes in bed:  the book puts forth an interesting, if cynical, theory on the structure of emotional obligation that underlies every relationship, and I would have liked more information to determine how Juan and Luisa fit into this rubric (particularly since it’s a system that Juan, at least, seems to accept as fundamentally valid).

In conclusion:  a wonderful, affecting book, interestingly structured, darkly compelling. I am absolutely eager to read more Marias:  I have already taken steps to get copies of All Souls and The Dark Back of Time, which I intend to read consecutively. I will give it a few months before I pick him up again, though; if his others get into my head the way that this one did I might not be able to bear it.

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The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like this and I did not particularly. Either my expectations warped my opinion or I’m flush with self-knowledge. To be fair, it was better than I’d feared–perhaps my statement that, having read DeLillo’s fictionalized account of the shot heard around the world in Underworld, I had already experienced the best and needed never to read another baseball-related piece of fiction was premature and brash. In fact, Mr. McGinty has convinced me that I must seek out The Natural for a far superior sports novel and I intend to–I somehow missed it years ago when I made a sweep through Bernard Malamud’s work.* We shall see for sure in a few months or whenever I do manage to locate a copy of the Malamud, but I suspect that this lead will be the best thing that Fielding bequeaths on me.

The Art of Fielding. Yes, demanding internet, I shall try to say a few words about the book itself. It’s about a shorstop who is suffering a crisis of confidence and the various people who are affected by this tragic (’cause it means the school might lose its chance to win for the first time ever–quite tragic in the novel’s small scope) occurrence. It is a college novel–one of my favourite fake subgenres–but also a sports novel–not my favourite narrative due to the inevitable predictability of the story arches. It could, actually, have been quite enjoyable, but several huge factors crippled it fatally. My, it had awful characters. Except for two fully realized personalities–team captain and mentor extraordinaire Mike Schwartz and lovestruck college president Guert Affenlight–everyone was thin and unconvincing, a transparent collection of plot devices masquerading as people. Terrible ending that even I–not, as I have said, an avid consumer of the sports narrative–could recognize as a towering cliche. Unremarkable, simple prose. Blurbs by my arch-nemesis Franzen, a distinctly Franzenesque feel to the whole affair–Franzen by way of a feel-good Disney sports film. And did I mention that the ending was terrible? And that the characters–particularly Cool Gay Roommate/Object of Desire and Wine-Coloured-Hair Rebellious Daughter/Plot Device–were cringingly bad? It’s not good when your characters are mostly flimsy, but when two of the main figures–the young gay man and the only woman in the entire book–are little more than their labels eyebrows must be raised.

I am, as happens so often with these types of books (see:  Freedom), in the minority. It’s been critically acclaimed but, more telling, my customers love this book, which speaks of a popular appeal both broad and deep. I could see it doing quite well in the tournament–at the very least, it will make it out of the first round, and if it is axed I expect we’ll see it again as a horrific baseball-concussed zombie. Ugh.

(*”Somehow” is misleading. I missed it precisely because I had at the time the ingrained habit of starting with every author’s lesser works and avoiding the titles they were most known for. It’s left a lot of striking gaps in my knowledge.)

The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst

My gentleman friend could not make it through this book; he claims that its premise–gay Victorians–has been overdone of late, ridden into trenches of irredeemable cliche. Not being overfamiliar with the supposed ubiquity of the narrative, I enjoyed The Stranger’s Child very much. It does fall squarely in one of my wheelhouses:  I not-so-secretly adore (good)* historical fiction, particularly if it has Victorians and World War I and English manors and boarding schools and Oxford intellectuals. Hollinghurst covers all of this and–bonus!–builds his plot around the construction of an artistic legacy through the ages.  It’s reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Robertson Davies:  that is to say, it’s utterly delicious if you like that sort of thing. Since I am this book’s ideal reader I have no objective words on either its quality or its chances.

(*Byatt, Mantel, Dunnett, the like. No Philippa Gregory and her cohort for me, thank you very much.)

The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje and I have never been close. My favourite book of his is The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which should tell you that I don’t connect well with his more traditional novels. The Cat’s Table was no exception. I felt like I should have liked it quite a bit–it’s about children running wild on a ship, after all, a plot that has worked well for others. But I didn’t care for it–maybe just because I read it relatively late in the lineup, when my patience for the themes and structural choices that it shares with so many of the other books had become worn. Like in The Last Brother we have a grown narrator reminiscing about life-altering childhood events; like The Sense of an Ending we have a meditation on memory and the perspective granted by time. I liked both of these things better in the works I read first. There is an attempt at a sensational, exciting plot, but it doesn’t fit, nothing fits together properly in this novel, it draws so many thematic conclusions that I have no idea what it was trying to do, and while I didn’t hate it I don’t consider it very worthy. It won’t last long in the Tournament.

The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock

A violent little book with little to redeem it. One of the few books from the Tournament that I actively wish I had not read. Kerry at Hungry Like the Woolf has an excellent review  which thoroughly covers my complaints. I’m too busy working on forgetting it to say more–luckily, I’m sure that this process will be facilitated by its speedy elimination from the Tournament.

Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

Last year’s winner of the National Book Award, Salvage the Bones has the prize pedigree to back its advance in the Tournament. Personally, I hope that the judges will refrain from giving this lackluster novel any more attention than it has already garnered; I am convinced–and this sounds horrible, I’m sorry, but I am–that its acclaim rests on it being a very PC pick. This is a story about Hurricane Katrina, narrated by Esch, a poor, black, pregnant fifteen-year-old. I have problems with historical tragedy being used in novels; as touched upon in my discussion of The Last Brother, it is often used manipulatively, to give a book false emotional weight. I felt this to be exactly the case with Salvage:  there is just so little to the book beyond the storm, its long buildup and anticipation, its quickly (and absolutely tritely) resolved aftermath. It read to me like any number of Young Adult Problem Novels, a subgenre I am well acquainted with from my misspent youth and which I have grown to abhor; I half-suspect it of being written as a YA book and elevated to adult through marketing ploys. Wander through the young adult section of your local bookstore:  I guarantee you’ll find dozens of books that would sit more comfortably beside Salvage as its rightful peers than you might by perusing the past winners of the National Book Award.

The “searing narrative voice” is supposed to be the thing that elevates this book from the others. Perhaps I am coldhearted, but I was unaffected. Esch is a noncharacter; her one personality trait is her horribly, repetitively described pregnancy. I doubt whether Ward  has ever been pregnant herself:  if she has, surely she could think of a better way to describe the sensation beyond comparing the abdomen to a bowl of water, a phrase so overused that I came to dread its inevitable recurrence with each turn of the page. I do not even want to talk about the heavy-handed overarching metaphoric comparison between Esch and China, her brother’s beloved and vicious fighting pit bull who gives birth to her first litter of puppies just as Esch realizes the fact of her own pregnancy. I would really have to sit and think very hard to come up with a recent read that’s contained such a clunky and forced parallel.

Other characters also fail to rise above the one-trait descriptions of them:  there’s the basketball playing eldest brother who longs to escape a life of poverty through sports, the half-feral younger brother who likes to scuffle around beneath the house, the alcoholic and neglectful father, the skeezy not-boyfriend who obviously prefers his official girlfriend to Esch, the strong & silent “nice guy” friend of her brothers. The only interesting characters were Skeetah, the brother closest in age to Esch, and his vicious China. The relationship between the boy and his dog was the only compelling one in the book.

I do like the structure of the book, if not the content:  the bulk of the book takes place in the days leading up to the hurricane, and the slow build of tension and anticipation is effectively excruciating. Katrina itself is well-described, well-written, and utterly harrowing, almost enough to raise my opinion. A sense of resentment at the emotional manipulation of the whole affair, combined with yet another terrible ending–this one falsely optimistic, pat, and overly simplistic–prevent that possibility. If this were in fact a YA novel I would judge it on kinder terms, but it is a prize winning adult novel, and I feel it to be utterly mediocre by those standards.

Green Girl, Kate Zambreno

A collection of vignettes about Ruth, a young woman adrift in London, told through the critical gaze of a Mysterious Narrator (presumably Ruth’s future self, but who knows; this intriguing stance was never resolved or much explored). Ruth is a “Green Girl,” a pretty waif utterly concerned with the surface of things, with her own surface. Her shallowness is the plot of the novel:  nothing happens, she is simply presented in various situations and then ridiculed for her failings. Positive reviewers have alluded to an empathy with Ruth, have suggested that her shallowness holds up a mirror to their own to a striking effect. I did not have the same experience–I found the character too emphatically empty to relate with in the least. Even the most appearance-concerned young women I have known, the most apparently stereotypical black-dress-buying US-weekly-reading makeup-smearing heel-wearing starlet-aspiring girls, are, indeed, people, each with thoughts and depths and worthinesses. I could find no reflection of reality in Ruth, nothing that matched my own experience of modern femininity. I kind of get what Zambreno might have been trying to do, but her social critique–if that is what this loose mess was intended to be–never advances beyond a profile of the so-called “Green Girl.” There is no deeper level, no greater concern, no interesting conclusion or implication. Like its character, Green Girl was, for me, nothing more than a pretty concept masking a hollow center. I will be shocked if this makes it very far at all in the Tournament (though I halfway suspect that its first judge, Edith Zimmerman, might find more value in it than I. We will see!)

Open City, Teju Cole

My surprise favourite of the books I hadn’t yet read. I disliked it while reading, but since finishing it has haunted my mind and encouraged my thoughts in directions they would not otherwise have gone. I  love it when a book does this, find it surprisingly rare, and value highly anything that stays with me for so long.  I rather intend to get my hands on a copy again and write a post dedicated to this one so I shan’t say more.

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The Last Brother by Natacha Appanah

This was one of the titles from the Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen that I was most excited to read, an anticipation that was somewhat disappointed as this one made no huge impression on me. I liked it, I was happy to have read it once I had finished. Contrary to what most reader reviews suggest–I am thinking mostly of goodreads, where most readers note dutifully the importance of being educated on a forgotten corner of World War 2 history–this is not a Holocaust novel; this is a novel about grief; about a small boy who has lost all of his brothers and who, through a series of tragedies, loses the stand-in brother, a friend who happens to be a Jewish refugee imprisoned in bureaucratic stasis on the island of Mauritius. It is indeed set in a forgotten pocket of the Holocaust narrative, but Appanah, I believe, makes a very conscious decision throughout most of the book to distance it from the genre. (I say most because the ending, the last few pages, disrupt this impression by making the historical context quite explicit. I hated the ending.) And thank goodness that she does. Holocaust in literature is a quandary best avoided except by minds of the highest order, writers of the finest talent and most unimpeachable integrity.* Appanah sidesteps the problem by employing the well-used trope of “adult narrator looking back on and retelling childhood events,” a narrative frame that is common enough to raise skepticism in this reader, but which may well have saved the book for me. It provided the very necessary perspective of memory and adulthood that saved it from falling into that most sentimentally precarious of genres, that of the Holocaust novel:  through the aged eyes of adult Raj, his childhood friend David is an enigma, a total Other; language barriers and the oblivion of childhood prevented young Raj from ever seeing his friend or knowing his suffering–and grown Raj realizes this and is repeatedly, physically tormented by his failure to ever know this most precious of friends, this surrogate brother. I took Raj’s retrospective realization as to how little he understood David’s situation as signifying the ineffable horror of the Holocaust, how it is impossible for anyone who has not directly experienced it to come close to understanding what it is like; that Appanah wove the acknowledgement of this impossibility into the plot is a mark in its favor. This strategy–an old man wracked by guilt over his failure to understand, and by understanding save, a young Jewish refugee–could have been heavy-handed, but it worked for me.

Rather, it worked until the ending, which–spoiler, I suppose–nearly destroyed the book for me:  the last few pages have a  stilted summary of historical events, unnecessarily shoehorned in, followed by a pat avowal to remember and pass on the story to future generations. This jerked the whole text back into the territory of bad Holocaust novels and the cliches they trade in. I would have preferred an ending more in line with the fraught guilt and sense of lifelong grief that characterizes the rest of the novel–the one it has quite undermines any emotional force that the book had until its close. So long as I can willfully pretend not to have read the last few pages I can appreciate this book.

*I draw a line of distinction between Holocaust fiction and true accounts, of course–everyone should read Primo Levi and Eli Wiesel–but my unease about fiction in this subgenre is due in part to the proliferation of false accounts which do great harm to historical truth, obviously by giving ammunition to deniers, but also simply by blurring the lines between fiction and reality in every mind. I cannot go so far as to agree with Adorno’s famous moratorium against creating art after the Holocaust; I am too much a romantic believer in the necessity of literature to go that far. But it is a difficult area, and books like The Book Thief or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas offend me, and are primarily what I am thinking of when I say how glad I am that The Last Brother is not of their ilk. I won’t continue in this digression–it’s awfully complicated to express well–but I refer anyone interested to the always-eloquent  Cynthia Ozick:  her essays “Who Owns Anne Frank?” and “The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination,” both found in the collection Quarrel & Quandary, have informed my thoughts on this matter; I don’t fully agree with her–she takes an extreme stance–but the bones of the argument have always struck me as sound and I look upon the subgenre with eyes tinted by suspicion.

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I’ve written elsewhere,  once or twice, rather pompously I’m afraid, about the much-anticipated Tournament of Books already. For the uninitiated, the Tournament is the most fun on the Internet in March for bookish types; it is at once silly–because prizes for art are inherently ridiculous, based as they are on the vagaries of particular aesthetic taste–and profound–because it is, always, utterly aware of its own absurdity. For several years running I have done my best to read everything and, while I regret this OCD completionist attitude at certain reads, it’s always brought me more good than bad. It was easier this year than in last–I’d already read quite a few of them prior to the announcement. My first impression of the list was one of dissatisfaction:  last year was not a strong year for me in newly published contemporary fiction. I’m still working on formulating my revised and updated opinions on the books I read since the brackets made their glorious debut; until then, here are some brief, impressionistic thoughts on the ones I read prior to the announcement, in 2011. All have long since been returned to the library or otherwise rehomed (space restrictions, the fact that I already own more books than any person my age has a right to, prevents me from keeping most books after I’ve read them) so I am unable to do proper reviews, with substantiating evidence and quotes and page references, on any of the books, but these, the long-ago read will suffer most. Alas, nevertheless:

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes

I liked this, as I knew I would:  memory claims that I’ve liked every Barnes I’ve ever read. It was fretful and extremely British; deceptively slight, but troublesome enough to continue in the mind long after the mere few hours it took to read had passed. I love this book for what it did to me more for its narrator (anonymous, forgettable, I do not even recall what his name was supposed to be) or the menial details of its plot:  it made me stop entirely in my head to think about agency and memory, action and inaction, the roles we play in our lives concretely and how they differ from the roles we think we play. “I wonder when our literature will stop being so obsessed with the fallibility of memory as its central theme,” a coworker said sarcastically when I tried to recommend it to her. She is right, in a way; it’s hardly a new idea. But it’s not exactly the point–the point is more about responsibility than anything else. A deeply moral book without ever moralizing, utterly profound, deserving of its Booker win regardless of what anyone says. In addition to its resonant theme I adored the way this was told–how actually, physically slight it was, how deceptively inconsequential and meandering and plotless/pointless everything seems until, suddenly, it’s over and you realize that something very large has just taken place without your notice. It’s incredibly subtle and masterful–I intend to buy it when it hits paperback and reread it to try and determine how it works, how Barnes managed it. This is easily one of my favourites of the batch and, though I’ve seen some mixed reactions to it, I do like its chances.

Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt

Helen DeWitt! Her first published book, The Last Samurai, made a great impression on me when I read it years ago that I’ve been eager to read more by her ever since, and this didn’t disappoint. Much. It’s a very, very different book from Samurai, and in comparison to that one it is slight–and not in a good way. Still, it isn’t fair to judge a book on the basis of its predecessor, and I did like this one quite a bit:  it was funny (a rarity for me–I am terminally serious and rarely amused) and biting and awfully smart. I actually read it–kind of, halfway–again in January to make sure it really was as satirical and clever as I thought it was. And it was, though perhaps a bit too reductive about gender differences to be truly great. ToB predictions:  probably not good–anyone who doesn’t get its particular brand of humor instantly might be offended or, at the very least, put off by the distant narrational tone.

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick de Witt

All I can really remember about this was how distracting I found the spectre of its potential movie while reading it. I enjoyed it, I think, but suspect I read it in one of my famous Sunday afternoon tears, that is, too quickly to think much about it. (This is my habit with genre.) Everyone everywhere seems to invoke the Coen brothers in reference while describing it and this is apt:  it reads just like one of their films. This is, more or less, a good thing, but it’s no True Grit (which I must have read about the same time or a little before) in my memory. It may do well in the tournament–I’m confident, at least, that it will make it to the second round.

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides

This is my favourite to win–not because I adored it unreservedly, but because I think it fulfills a number of broadspectrum factors of appeal. I loved this while I was reading it–I could relate so much to it:  I love Barthes! and I’m interested in the varieties of religious experience! I know just what it feels like to fall in love destructively just after graduating from college with a useless degree in literary theory!–so much of it resonated, and, I suspect, will do so for others. For the day that I was reading it and about a week after I thought very highly of this book. I still do, but my swooning enthusiasm has died down markedly as the months have passed and I am more and more bothered by its defects. Which, as they are spoilery, I will not delve into in this post, but may return to if it does well in the ToB.

The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht

This book had moments of excruciatingly beautiful writing but it never came close to fitting all of its disparate pieces together in a satisfying manner. I would like it a lot more if not for its pre-pub hype & the fact that no one–customers, mainly–who I’ve spoken to personally save for my good friend L. even remotely agrees with me that this book was just barely okay and certainly not great. Sometimes having a dissenting opinion makes me really aggressively contrary. If this advances at all in the tournament I will probably spend a lot of time complaining about it to my boyfriend–because he’ll at least nod along and appear to be listening–and perhaps to the silent caverns of the internet.

State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

I have all the respect in the world for Ann Patchett as a human being. We–my coworkers and I–are all vocal, laudatory fans of her decision to enter bookselling. We scour our daily bookselling mailing lists for quotes she gives on bookselling, handselling, and indie bookstores in the age of amazon, and email them to each other, often simultaneously, always expressing the desire to meet her and thank her. Honestly, I’m kind of forgetting that she’s a writer.

I loved Bel Canto back in the day but haven’t read it since I was a young teenager. After this one, I probably never will reread it; she’s awfully bookclubby. This is fine–bookclubby books are often perfectly good and fill an important social role–but it’s simply not to my current taste. I still cannot decide how it will fare in the Tournament; Kingsolver, similarly bookclubby, did after all do very well with the (weak, I thought) Lacuna.

Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

I complained initially about the inclusion of both Obreht and Russell and I stand by that complaint:  I would have much rather had just one of the 20-under-40ers and given the spot to a more interesting, less well-known pick. Even though I like Obreht’s chances better in the contest itself, I would probably have chosen Russell over Obreht for the tournament, myself, because I personally found her effort to be slightly more charming and enjoyable. My notes suggest that my reason for disliking both books was the same:  both are so poorly structured that they fail as cohesive novels. I think I’m in the minority, but I am slightly more likely to pick up Russell’s next book than I am Obreht’s; I guess I just like alligators more than tigers. It won’t happen, but I’d love to see those two up against each other.

1Q84, Murakami

I had read half of this prior to the bracket release. I put it down in utter disgust, planning to never come back. Dubious readers, this is something I almost never do. If I have already read more than half of a book I am almost always going to finish it. I was bitterly disappointed by Murakami but my loyalty to the Tournament forced me to rally my strength, conduct a rescue expedition into the wilds of Under Bed, and sacrifice an entire Sunday to finishing. Spoiler:  it did not get any better. Scott Esposito expresses most of my complaints very nicely and with a lot less vitriol but even so I might write up something just about the Murakami–I can’t talk about it without discussing explicitly the end.

As Mr. McGinty could attest, if he pleased, I’ve devoted an unhealthy amount of the past month worrying that 1Q84 might sweep the Tournament, destroying my faith in my own taste. There are an awful lot of people on the internet who love this book; I do not understand and no one can or will explain it to me satisfactorily. I fear I am in the minority regarding Murakami’s behemoth; I fear it will do very, very well.

I have at my right elbow my copy of Javier Marias’ A Heart So White, a book that is much better, so far, than most of these. The library is nipping at my heels for its swift return so I shall, dear Internet, leave you for the pleasure of its company.


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